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Published on November 11th, 2013 | by Alastair Gilmour

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The brewpub revolution

The brewpub phenomenon is once again striding across the region, as Alastair Gilmour discovers

Records show that one Prudence Hackworth brewed beer at the Grey Bull, Cowgate, Newcastle, between the mid-1840s and 1856. Around the same time, Thomas Speedy could make “eight half-barrels” of beer at the Black Bull’s Head on Westgate Street, Newcastle, while the Scotch Arms in North Shields was brewing until 1824.

The recent upsurge of interest in brewpubs in the North East is simply turning the clock back 150 years and more, with the likes of the Trent House in Newcastle having installed a microbrewery – canny beer too, by all accounts – the acclaimed Temptation Brewery about to run a small plant at the Offshore 44 premises on the city’s Sandhill, and Rail Ale brewed in the cellar of The Schooner in Gateshead. It’s all happening.

But first off the brewpub blocks (since The Dog And Parrot in the 1980s) is the hugely impressive Bridge Tavern which hunkers under the Tyne Bridge on Newcastle Quayside and has already made a significant impression on the region’s pub-goers.

The brewing vessels sitting along the back wall of the former Fever nightspot (née Newcastle “Bottom” Arms) look for all the world like 1960s Soviet spacecraft. Constructed from glistening stainless steel and shimmering copper, it’s not beyond the bounds of imagination to envisage them hurtling into the vast beyond, forever sending messages back to Earth.

Despite the glow, this is very much a working brewpub. Bursts of steam from mash-tun lids and cleaning chemicals don’t sit particularly well with public safety measures, so brewing at the moment is virtually a nightshift affair, before hours of elbow work put the shine back into the surfaces ready for opening time.

12_IMG_7988The Bridge Tavern’s brewing – and polishing – operation is the domain of Joe Roberts (pictured right), who dipped his toe into making beer at Skinners Brewery in Truro, Cornwall, before spending spells at North East breweries Allendale – where he admits he learned a lot – Tyne Bank and Anarchy.

“I’ve been around a bit,” he says with some understatement for a 25-year-old. “I’m creating three new recipes a week which is very demanding. But I love the freedom I have here and the brew kit is incredible for its size.

“A lot of people who come in to the pub are surprised to learn it’s a working brewery. It came from a cider-maker in the West Country who also tried to brew beer on it – without much success. The yeast used for apples and beer doesn’t mix.”

Brewpubs – combining a microbrewery and bar-restaurant – cater for people who are seeking a different kind of beer and a distinctive experience. This week’s batch will be different from last week’s and that’s the point – it’s exactly what the clientele is after. Experimentation and adventure is expected.

“Every brew I do I want to be perfect and I was very happy with the Extra Pale I came up with,” says Joe. “There are health and safety issues around brewing while the pub’s open, although we have done it. A lot of it is about the chemicals used for cleaning and the copper being hot – people will always put their hand on it to see just how hot it is. I spend most of my time cleaning – I’m beyond anal with stuff like that. I like to start every brew with my equipment in as clean conditions as I can. I don’t know if it makes much difference to the beer and I know brewers who make great beer on filthy kit – but it works for me and it’s a food production facility after all.”

Joe is no stranger to 12-hour days – in fact, that’s the norm – and he and Matt Boyle from Wylam Brewery (who acted as consultant on the microbrewery set-up) did two, 23-hour shifts to get the kit bedded in when the Bridge Tavern first opened in late September.

As we say, it’s all happening – even though we’re going back to our roots. In 1830, Newcastle, Northumberland and Durham could boast 100 “common” brewers and 399 “licensed victualler” brewers (effectively brewpubs). By 1890 only 14 North East publicans took out brewing licenses and by 1908 none did. This was down to several factors – takeover and amalgamation, stricter legal requirements, greater accountability and closer public scrutiny through the media (yes, even then).

But could we be entering a whole new world? Entries in brewing archives show that Mary Stewart operated an eight half-barrel brewery at the Ferry House, Felling Shore, Gateshead, in 1839 and in 1798, William Smith occupied The Turk’s Head on Newcastle Quayside which included “an excellent brewery”.

So the current crop of new brewpub unveilings spearheaded by the Bridge Tavern is continuing a long-established tradition. One thing’s for sure, though, the smart money’s on Joe Roberts rather than William Smith, Prudence Hackworth, Thomas Speedy and Mary Stewart when it comes to a “beyond anal” cleanliness regime.

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Alastair Gilmour



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